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A lasting impression

Andrew Lloyd Webber's famous musical about a double murderer finally made it to the bay area with Friday night's performance at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Was it worth the wait?

Sure it was. The Phantom of the Opera is great spectacle. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show at this point _ six years after it opened on Broadway _ has to do with money and hype: the well-oiled marketing machinery that makes it such a wildly anticipated event; the T-shirts, mugs and magnets, the keychains and other souvenirs being peddled in the lobby; the dressed-up crowd primed for a big night out. It is the Super Bowl of show business.

However, commercialism is not all that drives Phantom. The story of the affair between the disfigured composer who haunts the Paris Opera House and Christine Daae, a Swedish soprano, strikes a resonant chord. Gaston Leroux's gothic novel has served as source material for a half-dozen movies, and it found an ideal stage interpreter in Lloyd Webber. He wrote the musical as a vehicle for his second wife, Sarah Brightman, who played Christine in London and on Broadway.

Though the melodrama of the two-and-a-half-hour show can become tiresome, its central theme of concealment _ "Hide your face so the world will never find you," the Phantom sings _ exerts a hold on a modern-day mass audience. Thanks to pop psychology, people are well acquainted with issues involving the self and society, identity and personality and relationships. That the star of the show strangles a stagehand and a tenor in his quest for love doesn't seem to reduce his sympathetic appeal. Logic is not the strong suit of this theatrical experience.

There's a misperception that Lloyd Webber is a master of melodies, when in fact he is kind of stingy with them. What he does is take a few good ones _ Think of Me, The Music of the Night, All I Ask of You _ and repeat them over and over. Compared to the melodic invention of a comparably successful show from an earlier era, such as My Fair Lady by Lerner and Loewe, Phantom verges on being oppressive, which may be just what the composer intended. He juxtaposes delicate vocals with the brutal force of electronic keyboards. Astringent minor chords occur at key spots in the score.

When Lloyd Webber sticks to the conventions of musical theater and opera, he is as sophisticated as anyone ever has been. Perhaps the two best numbers in the show are the Notes/Prima Donna ensemble in the opera managers' office and the full company's Masquerade. The opera spoofs _ Hannibal, Il Muto and Don Juan Triumphant _ are deliciously wicked.

Franc D'Ambrosio, who plays the Phantom, was in bad voice Friday. In high notes, he adopted the glassy, near-falsetto whine of Michael Crawford, who originated the role, but to much less pleasing effect. In low notes, he was guttural. Singing the finale, when the Phantom declared his love for Christine, D'Ambrosio was tender, teary and out of tune.

Adrienne McKeown made a suitably dreamy chorus girl turned diva of the Opera Populaire. She warmed as the evening went along, and by the time Christine somehow wound up at her father's grave, where the Phantom hid behind a cross, her rendition of Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again was prettily evocative. (Sylvia Rhyne plays Christine on Tuesday and Sunday nights.)

The cast of this Phantom company is excellent. John Schroeder's Raoul pursued Christine with ardent conviction. Opera managers Firmin and Andre, played by David Cryer and Roger E. DeWitt respectively, sang the letters they got from the Phantom with terrific comedic style.

Rebecca Judd, as ballet director Madame Giry, told the story of how the Phantom had once been caged in a circus sideshow with wonderfully spooky conviction. Ilene Bergelson played Giry's daughter Meg with winsome charm, though the moment at the end when she held the Phantom's mask up to a light seemed perfunctory and lacked a certain suggestiveness.

Of course, Phantom is famous for its chandelier, but the half-ton prop seemed lost in the vastness of TBPAC's Festival Hall. It fell down on stage with more of a whimper than a bang. The power of Maria Bjornson's production design stems from the shadowy lighting, swirling smoke and Victorian drapery. In the Phantom's lair, the atmosphere was fraught with sexual tension.


The Phantom of the Opera

The musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe and book by Stilgoe and Lloyd Webber, at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center Friday. The show runs through April 9. Tickets are $16-$61. Call 221-1045 or (800) 955-1045.